Veterinarian Reviewed on April 1, 2014 by Dr. Janice Huntingford
Cat Diabetes (Feline Diabetes)
Signs and Symptoms
Diabetes mellitus or “sugar diabetes” is a complex endocrine disorder that affects the body’s ability to metabolize sugar. This either occurs because the pancreas does not produce sufficient amounts of the hormone insulin (type 1 diabetes) or because the cells do not respond properly to the presence of insulin (type 2 diabetes). Cats can develop either form of this disease and felines of any breed and age can be affected. However, cat diabetes more commonly occurs in older, obese felines and generally tends to affect males more often than females. Feline diabetes is a very serious illness that can have severe consequences for your pet. When left untreated or treated improperly, this disorder can predispose your cat to developing a number of different unpleasant conditions such as cataracts, blindness, gangrene, and kidney disease. Diabetes can even lead to coma and death. As a result, it’s important to catch this disorder as early as possible, so that your pet can be properly treated and cared for.
There are a number of different signs and symptoms that cats tend to display when suffering from diabetes. Two of the classic warning signs of this disorder are excessive thirst (polydipsia) and excessive urination (polyuria). These symptoms arise because a diabetic cat loses sugar through its urine, and these sugar molecules pull more water out with them. This increased loss of water then drives the animal to drink more. In addition to these classical symptoms, a diabetic cat often loses weight despite an increased appetite.
Other warning signs that may be exhibited by a diabetic cat include lethargy, depression, and an unkempt coat. Some cats may also experience vomiting. Another warning sign that occasionally occurs in diabetic cats is sudden blindness. Since animals with diabetes lose weight and muscle mass, a cat suffering from this condition may become weak. With felines, it’s particularly common for a disorder known as neuropathy to arise, which causes weakness in the animal’s back legs. In fact, it’s this symptom that often alerts pet owners to the fact that there is a problem, leading to a diagnosis of diabetes mellitus.
Since diabetes is a complex and serious disorder that can have an array of negative effects upon your cat’s body, it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs. If you observe your cat exhibiting any of the above symptoms or behaviors, it’s vital that you alert your veterinarian immediately.
When a case of cat diabetes is suspected, a veterinarian will first go over your pet’s medical history and conduct a thorough physical exam. Next, blood tests and urinalysis will most likely be used in order to confirm whether or not diabetes is at the root of your cat’s problems. Blood tests will reveal whether or not there are high levels of sugar in your cat’s blood. If your pet’s blood sugar is consistently and significantly elevated, this will be an indication of diabetes mellitus. Since consistently elevated levels are required to confirm diabetes, several blood tests may be necessary.
Urine tests can also be helpful when trying to confirm a diagnosis of cat diabetes. These tests can check for the presence of two different substances in the urine — sugar and ketones. When a cat has diabetes, there’s so much sugar in its blood that the kidneys cannot hold on to it all. Thus, excess sugar is passed out of the body through the urine. So if there are elevated levels of sugar in your cat’s urine, this could indicate the presence of diabetes. This test can be conducted through the use of a urine dip stick. A urine dip stick can also be used to check for the presence of infections in the urine, which commonly occur in diabetic cats due to the bacteria-friendly, high-sugar environment.
As suggested previously, urine tests can also be used to check for the presence of ketones in the feline patient’s urine. When glucose cannot enter cells, the cells end up metabolizing proteins and fats in order to get their energy, rather than metabolizing sugar. When this occurs, ketones are formed. If ketones are present in your cat’s urine, your pet is likely suffering from diabetes and will require insulin.
A cat’s pancreas is made up of two types of tissue, the acini and the islets. The acini produce digestive enzymes, which are secreted into the duodenum, while the islets produce hormones, which are secreted into the bloodstream. Insulin is one of these hormones, and it plays a vital role in the metabolism of glucose (sugar). When a cat eats, the fats, proteins, and carbohydrates that it ingests are broken down into smaller components that can then be used by the body’s cells. Glucose is one such component, and it is used by cells as a source of fuel and energy. As glucose enters a healthy cat’s bloodstream, the pancreas secretes small amounts of insulin, which then allows glucose to enter the cells and be converted into energy. The more glucose that enters the bloodstream, the more insulin that will be secreted. Thus, the pancreas works to keep blood glucose levels from rising too high (hyperglycemia) or falling too low (hypoglycemia).
However, when a cat is suffering from diabetes mellitus, one of two things will happen to prevent this system from functioning properly. In the case of type 1 diabetes, the pancreas fails to secrete sufficient amounts of insulin. When a cat has type 2 diabetes, sufficient amounts of insulin may be secreted but the cells do not respond properly to its presence. Either way, glucose is not properly utilized by the cells, which then begin to suffer from a lack of fuel, and blood glucose levels rise significantly. Both the lack of fuel reaching the cells and the high levels of blood glucose disrupt the proper function of numerous physiological pathways, causing a multitude of problems. This is why a cat suffering from diabetes mellitus will exhibit a number of different symptoms, from weight loss to excessive thirst, and in some cases even blindness or coma.
The exact cause of the onset of cat diabetes is not known; however, there are a variety of different factors and influences that have been linked to the development of this endocrine disorder. For example, obesity is known to predispose a cat to developing diabetes. In fact, this seems to be the most predominant predisposing condition where feline diabetes mellitus is concerned. While breed does not appear to be a factor with respect to this condition, male cats tend to suffer from diabetes more frequently than female cats.
Genetics and a lack of a nutritional diet may also predispose a cat to developing diabetes. Medical conditions such as chronic pancreatitis and other hormonal disorders such as hyperthyroidism and Cushing’s disease have also been linked to the onset of feline diabetes. Furthermore, certain medications like megestrol acetate and some corticosteroids may also have a hand in triggering the onset of diabetes in cats. Thus, even though the exact cause of this condition remains unknown, there are many different factors that have been linked to the onset of feline diabetes.
While diabetes can be very dangerous if left unchecked, it is a treatable and controllable disorder. The exact type of treatment that your cat will require will depend upon its individual needs and circumstances. Typically, however, treatment plans for diabetic felines include the administration of insulin, a healthy diet, and careful daily monitoring. Consistency is also important, with respect to medication, diet, feeding, and a stable lifestyle. Some cats may only require oral medication, but most cats will eventually require daily injections of insulin. Your veterinarian will teach you how to administer these shots, and cats generally grow accustomed to receiving these injections very quickly.
Education is key when it comes to treating feline diabetes. Your veterinarian will provide you with the necessary information about how to care for your individual pet. If your cat is overweight, a supervised weight loss plan will likely be implemented. Even if your cat does not have a weight problem, diet is still extremely important. In some cases, supplements and natural products may be appropriate to help treat your cat’s diabetes, and to provide more comfort and stabilization.
Homeopathic products contain natural ingredients that can help to control blood sugar levels and diabetes. For example, blueberry and an herb called fenugreek both reduce blood sugar levels and have healing and antiseptic properties. Jambul and milk vetch have a similar effect. Other natural substances such as devil’s club and dandelion have a beneficial effect upon liver and kidney function, as well as metabolism. Homeopathic products use a combination of such natural ingredients in order to provide several positive effects for diabetic cats. As a result, a homeopathic remedy may prove to be a very beneficial element in your cat’s treatment plan. However, before administering any form of treatment, be sure to consult with your veterinarian.
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Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan